(AP) BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies launched crackdowns Thursday against anti-government forces in widely separated parts of the country, sending warplanes against insurgent strongholds in two cities and restoring Iraqi state control in a third.
Dozens were reported killed in the two air attacks. In another show of force, Iraqi soldiers raided the Najaf office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to search for weapons. None was found, but the search marked the first time Iraqi forces had entered al-Sadr’s office since an agreement last month ended weeks of heavy fighting in the Shiite holy city.
American warplanes hammered Tal Afar, a northern city near the border with Syria that lies on smuggling routes for weapons and foreign fighters. The operations are intended to return the city 30 miles west of Mosul to interim Iraqi government control, the military said.
The U.S. military said 57 insurgents were killed in the attack. Nineveh province health chief Dr. Rabie Yassin said 27 civilians died and 70 were wounded. It was unclear whether any of those reported by the Iraqis as civilians were counted as insurgents by the Americans.
Yassin accused U.S. and Iraqi forces of refusing to allow ambulances and medical staff to enter the city and asked the government to intervene.
In Fallujah, American warplanes fired missiles on a building suspected of housing associates of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It was the third straight day of airstrikes in the Sunni extremist stronghold.
At least nine people were killed, including two children, said Dr. Ahmad Thair of the Fallujah General Hospital.
Elsewhere, American and Iraqi forces entered the central city of Samarra for the first time in months to try to re-seat the city council and regain control. U.S. Humvees and armored vehicles were seen entering the city as two U.S. helicopters hovered overhead.
In a city council meeting Thursday, the interim mayor and acting police chief of Samarra were named to serve until the general elections expected by January.
Local leaders in the Salahuddin province, of which Samarra is the provincial capital, and the U.S. 1st Infantry Division have taken necessary steps to return the city to normal, said Maj. Neal O’Brian, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.
The troops that entered the city will have joint traffic control points in the city and will also open the Samarra Bridge, the statement said.
U.S. officials agreed to go into the city after meeting with council members and other officials Wednesday in Tikrit, said Taha al-Hendaira, the head of the Samarra’s city council.
Despite the formal end of the U.S. occupation on June 28, the interim Iraqi government lost control over key Sunni Muslim cities such as Samarra as well as Fallujah and Ramadi. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that it could be months before U.S. and Iraqi authorities are prepared to take those cities back.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who leads the 1st Infantry Division, said he had offered a deal to insurgents under which they would be free to leave Samarra or to remain inside as long as they stopped fighting. It was unclear Thursday whether the insurgents had actually accepted any kind of proposal.
Military intelligence officials said they believe a hundred or so guerrillas, including some 40 foreigners — Saudis, Yemenis, Sudanese and Jordanians — were the biggest obstacle to Batiste’s initiative.
Elsewhere, dozens of Iraqi security force officers raided al-Sadr’s office, said one Iraqi police officer, who identified himself only as Maj. Yasser. He said no weapons were found but that ammunition and mortars were confiscated from nearby houses.
“We received orders from the Iraqi government to search al-Sadr’s office and the area around it. The inspection went on without problems and people who were in the office, including its director Sheik Ali Smeisim, coordinated with us,” Yasser said.
The search is a sign Iraqi security forces are trying to further consolidate their grip on the area around the Imam Ali Shrine compound, once under the control of al-Sadr and his followers. It also indicates the cleric and his group may be unwilling to create tensions that might threaten the existing peace deal.
The airstrikes in Fallujah, in the eastern and southern parts of this city, targeted a militant “command and control headquarters” that has been coordinating attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, the U.S. military said. It did not elaborate on casualties, except to say no noncombatants were hurt.
Contacts are under way between Fallujah representatives and the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The Fallujah residents want the U.S. attacks to stop and the Americans to pay compensation to people killed in attacks.
Allawi wants city officials to hand over al-Qaida-linked terrorists that he and the Americans say are in Fallujah. The contacts have produced no agreements.
In other developments Thursday:
_ U.S. warplanes detonated roadside bombs in a sprawling Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, a U.S. military official said. At least one person was killed and four injured in the strikes, officials at al-Sadr General Hospital said.
Sadr City is a stronghold for Shiite militiamen fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces. Militants, loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, usually plant improvised explosives to target U.S. convoys in the area.
_ In Germany, Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawer declared debt relief a critical topic for his current European trip and said that Iraq’s economic revival will help lay the foundation for stability.
_ Construction workers near the northeastern town of Halabja uncovered a mass grave believed to hold the remains of dozens of people killed under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, an official said. In 1988, Saddam’s forces launched a chemical weapon attack in Halabja, about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing an estimated 5,000 Kurds.
_ Two senior U.S. officials held talks with Iraqi leaders on the need to speed up the reconstruction, the Iraqi government said. William J. Burns, the assistant secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman met with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and other Iraqis, a government statement said.